Taking a Break

We’ve had a lot of family stuff going on lately and it’s consumed most of my energy. I’ll be heading back to the US soon to be in the mix. But before that, we headed out to take a little break. It may seem strange since we live on the Med, but stepping back is important during times of stress, and since life varies at different points on the Mediterranean (even in Spain) – thinking north and east – we decided some time away was in order.

Luckily, we didn’t need to go far, since everything in Europe is so close. Mostly, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. But this trip included some of my favorite things.

  • A Place I LOVE!
  • Ancient history
  • Lots of ruins
  • A favorite beach
  • Introducing Jeff to a place he’s never been

Tarragona is just south of Barcelona, right on the Med. It’s easily accessible by train so no stressful flight delays. This time, catching the train, we did the very Spanish thing and arrived right as boarding began. This means 20 minutes before it leaves (that’s when they assign the track). Highly unusual for us, since we’re always early to everything. (As though a train or plane will come sooner than expected). I was in a ‘I just don’t care, even if we miss the train we’ll catch the next one’ mode.

The other wonderful part of it is that where we stayed had ZERO wifi and the city has terrible cell service. I’m not sure why getting a signal was so touch and go, but it meant we were out of communication for days.

If you’re thinking of visiting – I would recommend visiting the Amphitheater first. There you can purchase an all-inclusive ticket for the main sites in the city. These include the Amphitheater, Forum, Murallas, Circus, Tower (Necropolis) and the Archaeological museum (although it’s under renovation and closed now – luckily I have been before). There are palaces within the walled city and other sites not requiring a ticket. I would highly suggest walking the entire perimeter of the walls around the old city.

The history of ‘Tarroco’ goes back thousands of years. It was a key city in the Roman Empire. Rich, well positioned, easily defensible. The city was a classic Roman city, and since then changed hands many times. Visigoths, Moors, French – it was so important it became a military target where empires invested in expensive sieges, and the very costly occupation of unwilling populations. As we know today in most of our current military conflicts around the world – it will not end well. Winning a war is one thing. Winning the peace is quite another.

No matter how many times I visit a place I always learn something new. Perhaps we filter information differently at different times. Changing our focus. But as an enthusiastic student of history, I’m always looking for new insights. This time when visiting the remains of the Roman circus, there were new plaques. They explained how the chariot races were were staged. How rich Romans paid for the races – gave away tickets for free – and their social standing was based on how many of the poor peasants showed up. Basically, just like today with social media and harvesting ‘Likes’. We are all still the same people we were more than 2,000 years ago. Our reptilian brains haven’t evolved that much. The Kardashians immediately came to mind. No matter how rich, they still need to be loved by the masses.

Another thing we learned about is that the social system in The Roman Empire was all about continually leveling the playing field. Rise too high – become too rich, too influential – and eventually, the state would seize all your possessions. They feared any consolidation of power through money and influence. But social breakdowns started keeping this from happening and the fall of Rome was inevitable as the peasantry rose up.

Jeff has usually, very reluctantly, embraced my historical forays, but as we walked through this history, he was struck by the parallels to what’s going on in the US today. Much like the Romans, we seem to be imploding; hoisting ourselves on our own petard. And walking through Tarragona, you are literally walking ON history. You can’t miss the buildings built precariously on the past. I’m not sure what their building codes have historically been, but some of these more modern structures appear to be perched – ripe for an earthquake to take them out. But so far, so good.

Anyway, it was a relaxing time away. Much needed. Who knows what the future holds. But whenever things get too crazy today, a little visit to the past is what my heart needs.

Hola Bilbao

We are in Bilbao. Fallas Refugees. We’ve met so many people lately who are Fallas Virgins. They can’t believe we are leaving to escape ‘All the Fun!’. I’ve been called a ‘fuddy duddy’ and a ‘buzz kill’. But they’ll learn the closer we get to March 19th when all hell breaks loose. I heard from an experienced expat that they passed a new law this year; now they can’t shoot off sanctioned fireworks between 2:30 and 7am. Whew! A whole 4 1/2 hours of sleep coming right up. It’s really that last week when it’s non-stop and the entire city goes nuts, and ‘sanctioned’ isn’t really the issue.

So we fled. And boy are we glad. Full nights sleep and a lovely vacation to Northern Spain. Bilbao is a city on the north coast, right on the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean. Its the beating heart of the Basque region. Culturally, and culinarily, it’s very different than Valencia. And Basque is a language that is nothing like Spanish or Valenciano.

I fell in love with Navarra when walking the Camino, so it feels wonderful to be back in the region. The Camino Frances doesn’t go through Bilbao. You have to walk the Camino del Norte if you want to do that. And just like so many other places in Spain, the flights from Valencia to Bilbao were cheaper than one way train tickets from Valencia to Barcelona. Who can pass up 7.99 euro airline tickets? Not me!

We are staying downtown near the Guggenheim Art Museum, It’s look alike cousin in Seattle, the famed EMP, (Experience Music Project) means that its architecture is something familiar to us. We will spend a day exploring their current collections in a few days.

The architecture in Bilbao is part 20th century Spanish, part 18th and 19th century cross European, blended with 21st century creative genius, and up on the surrounding hills they look more Swiss village. It’s wet, green and cold with dappled sunlight. Jeff is in heaven. One guy told me this time last year they were under feet of snow. Hmm.

The signs are in Spanish and Basque. Sometimes in Ingles too. Driving here is A LOT easier than in Valencia. Wider roads that makes sense. Imagine! Getting from the airport to town took maybe 20 minutes door to door and I’m happy to report even with me driving there was no swearing, tears or recriminations. When we arrived we saw that Valencia isn’t the only city in Spain to celebrate the Spring equinox. There is a festival in town and marchers for international Women’s Day. Lots of people out and about and rides with the requisite Churroteria to make the celebration that much sweeter – and deep fried.

We haven’t scratched the surface of the area yet but the blend of old and new has our attention and we are ready to hit the ground running exploring and, of course, looking at real estate. So far so good.

Last Days in Ireland – Feeling the Love

We left Derry and made our way back to Dublin. I’ve finally figured out the roads – what the letters mean – so we used the wider cow paths to get there – mostly uneventfully. I won’t lie, I’ll miss being called ‘Love’, ‘Pet’ or ‘Darlin” liberally sprinkled in any sentence that addressed me for the length of the country.

We fell in love with Derry so it was a little bitter sweet to leave it behind. The people in NI were lovely. We heard more Gaelic spoken the further North we went. Even though it’s UK. So happy that they’re keeping the language alive and it’s spoken on the street – not just in schools or at special occasions.

But we got plenty of sweets on our last day. Ireland makes donuts and ice cream one of the main food groups. We saw it all over the country and while Northern Ireland is technically the UK, they embrace it there too.

At Taboo Donuts I was a few pence short – I had winnowed my British pounds down knowing we were leaving the country. The woman understood.

Taboo Donuts – Derry, NI

‘No worries, love. I’ll just take 60 pence from the jar and if I see ya again, then I see ya. If not, no one leaves here without donuts.’

Of course, I went back to the hotel and found 60p in a pocket and brought it to her. How nice is that?!

Joe Jacksons ice cream was to die for. Lots of gluten free options and the scoop size is first rate. The place we stayed in Derry was, again, very traditional. Like our authentic coal burning Christmas in Mayo, our Derry Georgian New Year was a little smaller and more compact than we had planned. The pictures online were not accurate. So we were happy to move on back to Dublin to stay at more accommodating accommodations. An old Ducal Palace.

We headed first to Trinity College Dublin to see The Book of Kells. It’s a bible written many centuries ago – like a thousand years – on velum. But honestly, I was kind of ‘Meh’ on it. Not because it wasn’t beautiful or important, but after going to the Templar Castle in Ponferrada on my Camino in Northern Spain, where they have an entire library of such bibles and other books, it seemed a bit over-hyped.

But I did LOVE the library above where the the book is housed. It’s like what you expect all libraries in the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries were like. With ladders and such. Women had to get permission to enter back then, all knowledge being for the Men and all. They have displays of some of their most famous female graduates that fought for their right to study and graduate from Trinity College. Ironically, Trinity was initially funded by Queen Elizabeth I, so honoring women just seems natural.

After pulling me out of the library, Jeff and Em and I walked to the river to see the EPIC museum. This is the Irish Emigration Museum. Emigration and Ireland are intertwined. Due to famine, oppression, war, and economic hardship, the Irish have been spread throughout the world seeking a better life. EPIC does an amazing job telling that story.

We were astounded and moved by the stories from artists, engineers, politicians, athletes and much more, who have changed the world by sharing their gifts with the rest of the world. But the one thing that moved me the most happened after we were done viewing the exhibit.

Of course, you exit through the gift shop – just like every where else. But tucked behind the elevator is the Irish Heritage center. For 12,50 euro they give you access to their data bases. And you can sit right down and look it all up.

We had heard from others in Northern Ireland that Jeff’s last name, Darragh, could be the same as the city Derry. Derry is Royal Oak – only in Irish (Gaelic) its pronounced Darragh. It’s not spelled that way in Gaelic but upon entering Ellis Island, the officers spelled people’s names how ever they liked.

So the lady at EPIC started helping us and we got no where. Jeff isn’t close to his Dad or that side of the family. A lot happened there after his parent’s divorce and it’s like a third rail. He doesn’t touch it. But this lady didn’t know that and kept asking questions. I could tell she was coming close to the third rail. And then something happened.

There, all of a sudden, was a record of his grandfather via his Uncle Paige – who we discovered wasn’t named Paige at all. Which led to other records and more relatives. And suddenly we were looking at the immigration record of his 9 year old great-great grandmother who was from Northern Ireland (where we had just been), and had boarded a ship alone during the Great Famine – sent to live in America with relatives. It takes ‘Unaccompanied Minor’ to a whole new level. Jeff was overcome.

And there was the ship’s manifest for his great-great grandfather – her eventual husband – who came from County Clare a few years later. It was all there in black and white, this 18 year old kid who made the crossing for a better life.

But there was something else. Jeff was very close to his grandparents when he was little. His grandfather owned a music store, and when ever we go into one here, Jeff always talks about him. What a kind man he was. And how much he loved his grandmother. Well in that data base in Dublin, they had a photo of his grandparent’s graves. Jeff had never seen or been to the graves before. He had tried to find out where they were but no one seemed to know. And yet here we were, 7 thousand miles away and he was looking at them. I’ve never seen him so struck. Still waters really do run very deep.

We had another place to hit on our list and the museum was closing so we had to go. Jeff was quiet on our walk to the Jameson Distillery. It was a lot to process. I saw this on a wall on our way and it seemed to say it all. Across time and across miles, love doesn’t diminish. Even if those we love are gone.

We would go to both the Jameson Distillary and The Guiness Store house. Both are kind of must-see touristy things to do. But I definitely prefer Jameson’s and would skip Guinness as being a little too over the top.

Jameson’s was started in 1780. They are still making whiskey in Cork and I felt like I connected with their story more because of how small an operation it still really is. Sure, they make whiskey and ship it all over the world. You can buy it anywhere. But the people working there took so much pride in the operation and the legacy, well, it just struck me as more authentic.

Maybe it was the family motto of Arthur Jameson. It mean’s ‘Without Fear’ and as a Scottish Immigrant coming to Ireland to make whiskey from his own sweat and hard work, I liked it. Perhaps I’ll borrow that.

By contrast, Guinness feels HUGE. But of course they do. They’re everywhere, in every pub in Ireland. I had started taking pictures of the ads I saw on buildings all over the country. The message was clear ‘Guiness is good for you’ and it actually said it in one sign. It was always the working man’s drink – a reward after a hard day’s labor. But in Ireland, ‘the drink’ has a darker history.

But the view from the bar at the top of the Guinness Storehouse is not to be missed. The rest of it – Meh. You can see that it’s above the cloud bank looking out through the window in the first photo. Jeff enjoyed a pint too.

Our last stop before Em was due to fly out was Murphy’s Ice Cream. This was a must see for Emilie. She had watched ‘Somebody Feed Phil’ on Netflix this summer and when we told her we were going to Ireland she said ‘We need to go to that place he had ice cream’. So we did.

Murphy’s is a County Dingle company with a few locations sprinkled in the south of the country. They make some traditional favorites but specialize in crazy flavors like Sea Salt and Brown Bread. And that’s what Emilie ordered.

The staff are absolutely wonderful Brand ambassadors and we enjoyed chatting with them as much as eating the ice cream. An American couple came in and the kid behind the counter said ‘Hey, weren’t you here yesterday?’

The man looked incensed. ‘No’ he replied very cranky. As though the kid were implying that he was there too often.

‘Ach, too bad. You see, we give all our customers who come a second time free ice cream.’

That made the guy laugh.

This interaction is so typical of our whole trip. The Irish just have a way about them. They smile, they laugh, they cajole. You can’t be mad. We were on our way to the airport but had to make a stop to pick up another suit case. Yes, I finally admitted I had done a little shopping.

We parked on Merrion Square (Oscar Wilde called it home) and were walking into the main shopping areas. On the square, artist hang their canvases on the black fences and sell their work to passersby. It’s been going on for a long time and this square fronts the Irish National Gallery so it’s no wonder. Some of the artists are talented beyond what I ever hope to achieve with my dabbling, and they’re selling their art for peanuts.

But they’re also starving artists and they can be aggressive in their pitch. One old man – who’s canvases and those of his son are something I would be proud to hang in any home, sang me an Irish love song while trying desperately to get me to load up my, as yet, newly acquired suit case with a canvas or two of his work.

I’ve decided I’m going to create a gallery on this site for all our adventures. I’ve got too many photos that won’t fit into my blog posts. But then, after just scratching the surface of Ireland, I’m pretty sure there aren’t enough photos or blogs to capture the beauty and the people. We will be back.

Derry on the Uptick

*Still doing this on my phone. Formatting, etc. May be wonky.

Derry is a vibrant walled city with the old and new working side by side. Traffic and people weave through the gates; tourists and locals walk the top of the wall. Life is good here.

The walled city sits on an island hill that used to be surrounded by water entirely. Several centuries ago the river sort of sank a few feet. Hence ‘the Bogside’ neighborhood. And ‘the Waterside’. No longer an easily defensible island with a natural mote.

Derry is the only walled city in Europe whose walls were never breached by an enemy. And they were under seige here plenty. There is an actual Siege Museum to walk you thru the details, complete with armour and starvation descriptions aplenty to ensure you skip lunch. But not Guiness or a Savingnon Blanc. We’re not that disturbed.

Short version: Surprise! The English colonized Ireland in the 1500’s with their protestant Scottish cousins. They kicked the Irish Catholics off their land and formed plantations. ‘Plantations’. Now where have I heard that before? Hmm. This is known as ‘The Plantation of Ireland. It was systematic.

Lots of rebellions by the local native population took place so the English ringed the city in a wall with gates to allow commerce to flow. But also to maximize defense from local riff raff. Only Anglo-Scots were allowed to live inside. Other Catholic crown heads of Europe took umbrage over this and that – bada bing, bada boom – siege!

And like most sieges, it left a big impression on the population. The mayor of the town at the time said essentially ‘Hey, so I’ll pop out for milk. You guys stay here and guard the town during this ‘siege thing’. Promise I’ll be back.’ The milk got lost in the royal mail. (Insert Crying Over Spilt Milk reference here).

The town starved brutally during the siege so even today, every year, they take great pride in constructing effigies of this gentleman, then hanging and burning them. And I thought my family could hold a grudge. We got nothing on these people. There is even an effigy guide in the local Tower Museum to help the next generation make sure their effigy is the most accurate and humiliating as possible. Lest they forget.

The walls are the transit system here. Its a little over a mile all the way around. We are staying right on the wall so we just hop up and we are off where ever we need to go. No traffic to contend with and the views are lovely.

Just up the wall from us is The Cathedral of St. Columba. It’s the first Protestant cathedral built after the Reformation (Martin Luther starting the Protestant church). Its old. They wanted me to pay for a ‘photo license’ to take pictures of the inside so I don’t have any. Never been asked to do this in any church in the world, and I’m not starting now. It wasn’t as spectacular as our little church in Benimaclet, but it was nice enough.

In the vestibule, where you can take photos without a license, is the cannonball used by the Catholic army to shoot over the wall. It has a hole where they stuffed the terms of surrender. Heads up! Siege mail incoming!

The graveyard outside the cathedral peaked Jeff’s interest for walking thru and reading old tomb stones. It’s his favorite activity in small villages.

Here are a few photos of walking the wall and some of the sights from it.

We have discovered little Alleys and warrens in the city. Full of businesses run by women.

Derry is the poster child for the working woman, in my opinion. Shirt factories were in full swing here. 18,000 women worked in them in this area at one time in the 19th and 20th centuries. There was little work for men so the women were the breadwinners.

One of our elderly guides told us his mother worked in one. Another co-workers came to work 9 months pregnant and had her baby during her shift. The other women hid them and made sure to pick up the slack on her quota of collars for the day and such, or they would have fired her. The woman was back on the line the next day working. Without the baby. If she had taken a day off she would have lost her place. The women run businesses here today are a tribute to those women in those factories working 12 hour days to support their families.

We will miss ‘Womens Little Christmas’ on January 6th. Its when women, on one day a year, have traditionally left the housework and kids to the hubby and go out with their friends for one day. I love how the advert advises booking early to ‘avoid disappointment’. I think the women here have known disappointment for centuries.

We are off back to Dublin tomorrow to see a few of the last must-see sights before heading home to Spain, and seeing Em off back to school in the US. We’ve checked off so many things in our lists this holiday.

We picked up her prom dress and shoes here yesterday. I’m pretty sure no other girl will be wearing the same thing at her school. Whew! Prom dress shopping is too important to leave it to an online experience. And it’s a Mom/daughter milestone I didn’t want to miss. She’ll go back with all the things she needs for the next few months.

After one more cross country drive tomorrow. This marking on a Derry street pretty much sums up how that will go.

We will thoroughly enjoy the last few days in this beautiful country.

Derry: Two Sides One City

I’ve traveled to conflict zones over the course of my adult life. Some have been boiling over while I was there. Others quietly simmering.

Like in the Middle East, being stopped at checkpoints controlled by militia who stationed a 12 year old boy sitting on a bucket to ask why we want to travel a road, while clutching a machine gun. You’ll consider your life choices in moments like that.

There was the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea when we had one of our guys shot down on the North side of the border. Having to register with the embassy in case it all went pear shaped. With tensions running so high messages were perpetually flashing across the tv as warnings on how to evacuate the country.

Other places with long simmering conflicts like a divided Cyprus with the Turks and Greeks were not so scary. Just inconvenient.

But being here, what happened such a short time ago seems very real and is still very raw. I remember seeing stories on the news in the 70’s and 80’s, but the American press cared more about Middle East conflicts, where oil mattered above all else, to pay attention to what was happening in Northern Ireland. In the US, most people considered it a backwater – irrelevant.

As a refresher, back in the 60’s, as the rest of the world was fighting for civil rights – the Northern Irish Republicans (mostly Catholics) wanted their rights in Londonderry. They marched and protested peacefully. The British government cracked down hard, sending troops ‘for 3 months’ to crush the insurrection. They stayed for 38 years. It started here and Derry became ground zero for ‘The Troubles’- really a civil war.

Republicans wanted gerrymandering of elections that disenfranchised them to end, and elected officials to stop oppressing them. They wanted to be united with the rest of Ireland and govern themselves. The loyalist to the English crown liked things to stay as they were. But they were sorely outnumbered in Northern Ireland 2 to 1 then, and still are. There are just 2% of them left in the walled city of Londonderry and right outside the gate you can see their passion for their views today

They’ve painted the curbs in the colors of the British flag to show their Unionist support.

The Free Derry Museum tells the story of the time. Guided only by relatives of those killed in the conflict. It sits amongst a series of street murals done by ‘Free Derry Artists’ on buildings known as ‘The Peoples Gallery’ in an area called The Bogside, below the town wall where the Catholic slum used to reside. Where ‘Bloody Sunday’ occurred in Jan 1972 when British troops (by British PM David Cameron’s own admission) attacked unarmed peaceful protestors killing 28. The town went mad! The protest movement spread like wildfire across Ireland and the current incarnation of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) was born.

Walking amongst the murals is eerie. Like a graveyard. So much happened here, so little time ago. The mural of the little school girl is particularly poignant. Annete McGavigan was sent to get bread by her Mam when she was shot in the head by a British soldier. The first child of over 100 that would die in the conflict. The mural shows the stones she had collected for a school project that were in her pocket. They say her Father came and stood in front of it every day until he passed recently. He talked to her picture to tell her about his day.

Added to this mural, after the Good Friday accords that stopped the conflict in the 90’s, is a destroyed weapon. And a Butterfly. Two brothers who lost their brother in Bloody Sunday asked for it to be added to symbolize rebirth.

The other murals depict scenes and people from the period. The final one is the dove in the shape of Ireland. Celebrating all colors, religions and people in peace.

The EU erected a Peace Bridge here too. To symbolize their commitment to supporting peace in NI. But now there is Brexit. If you know anything about the debacle that is Brexit, you know Northern Ireland is a sticking point. Free Movement from the North to the rest of Ireland is part of the Good Friday accords. Brexit has rattled the people here. They’ve seen and been through too much. They don’t want ‘The Troubles’ to return. But they won’t accept a hard border to the south.

We had heard in the south that the feelings here are still raw. And they are. Like most geopolitical conflicts in the world, we in the US are so far from them we struggle to relate. We just turn off the tv and say ‘Uch. I’m tired of seeing that.’ Its a luxury other people, and other countries, don’t have. And these ‘little regional conflicts’ have very real, very global consequences for us all – whether we like it or not.

If Derry teaches us anything its that violence, walls and oppression are temporary solutions and not long term strategies for peace. Dialog, listening and a willingness to change our views, as times change, are the only way forward.

After David Cameron stood on parliament in 2010 and read the government report on Bloody Sunday – profoundly apologizing for it and taking responsibility, Derry and Northern Ireland held its breath. Large screens had been set up in town squares throughout Ulster to view it. It was a national event. Afterwards the news cameras were trained on an old woman whose husband was the last person killed that Sunday, 40 years before. Amongst tear gas he had come out of a doorway to help a boy who was on the street, shot and crying for his Mom. They shot her husband thru the eye as he tried to help the boy.

They asked his elderly wife what she would do if she had David ‘bloody’ Cameron standing in front of her right then. She said she would invite him in for a cuppa tea. ‘Its enough now.’ She told them. And the collective breathed a sigh of relief.

One man told me he was spoiling for a fight that day. Waiting for the English to shirk responsibility, again. ‘But if she can forgive, then so can I.’ I find that old woman’s example profoundly moving.

There are other amazing sights to be seen here. I’ll post those at another time, but on a day like New Years Eve, when we typically reflect on things, this deserves it’s own. Its that important.